Rena Gardiner exhibition

Detail of a cover design by Rena Gardiner for a piano recital programme (1987)For many years Rena Gardiner (1929-1999) produced illustrated books and pamphlets about the history of buildings and places, working entirely by herself in her Workshop Press, which was housed in part of her cottage at Tarrant Monkton, near Blandford Forum in Dorset. This exhibition showcases a number of these guide books and other printed items.

Rena Gardiner's work is an example of auto-lithography which involves drawing directly onto the printing plate and then printing it on a small commercial offset litho press. She built up the rich colour and texture by over-printing in many colours, using her eye and instinct to decide on the colour separation and treating her press with the flexibility of a handpress.

Rena wrote, illustrated and made her books herself. The work was physically demanding; moving large stacks of paper, collating, guillotining and binding were all tasks undertaken by Rena alone. Her life was surrounded by her work; much of the space in her thatched cottage was occupied by equipment, such as an enormous and ancient process camera, a plate-marker (plates were processed in the kitchen sink) and a folding machine.

Photograph of Rena Gardiner at work in her studioRena’s printing technique was based on the discipline and care demanded by a traditional training in lithographic printing on stone. As an art student at Kingston School of Art in the early 1950s, Rena was greatly influenced by the work of British artists such as Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious and John Piper. Her interest in book illustration was inspired by the series of Puffin Picture Books. Until 1970, she was a full-time art teacher, working on her books in her spare time. Later she gave up teaching (while still keeping her interest in education), and made her living through printing and the sale of her books.

Rena saw herself essentially as an artist, who chose the medium of book illustration to express herself and her ideas. It was of prime importance to her that, despite the obvious limited edition and fine print potential of her work, she wished to reach wider audiences and was content to keep her production costs at an extremely modest level and sell her books for a few shillings, and later for one or two pounds.

What is fascinating and most significant about her work is that she managed to achieve commercial mass-production while maintaining direct hand control over all the processes involved. Despite printing runs of up to 3000 copies, no two books are exactly the same. Balance of colour and weight of ink vary throughout the run because Rena used her press as a creative tool to develop and evolve her images. The press was not simply a means of reproducing an existing image in an exact and consistent way. Detail of printing by Rena Gardiner

Rena Gardiner’s method of printing can be described as auto-lithography. She drew directly onto an aluminium litho printing plate in just the same way as you would draw onto a litho stone. An accurate final ink drawing was made of each image on plastic tracing film. The drawing was transferred to the plate using tissue paper powdered with dry colour acting as non-greasy carbon paper. The image was not reproduced but was used as a keyline for the colour separations. Usually each image was made up of between four and six colour printings.

Rena did not work from a finished coloured master drawing, but, using her judgement based on years of experience, made up each separation direct on the plate, working out proportions and mixing in her mind. Rena never used process colours but individually mixed her inks. She usually started with the lighter colours (yellow) working towards the darker areas, the final plate being the darkest image pulling everything together. Positive areas to print were usually drawn with crayon or brush and asphaltum, but lines and textures could be created on the same plate in a reversed sense, i.e. light lines out of a dark colour by drawing or painting with gum Arabic acting as a resist.

Rena delighted in exploiting this interplay of positive/negative and the flexibility that the technique offered. Experimentation with texture is a feature of the prints: asphaltum was applied to a variety of materials, including fabrics, and then transferred directly onto the plate to create areas of varied pattern. Other effects were created by the brush, sponge and stippling with a pen. The resulting plates were printed on a standard commercial offset litho press.

Detail of printing by Rena GardinerRena had a rough idea of the colour scheme for each image before printing began, but final colour proofs were never made, as a run of each colour was completed before the next plate was printed. This is an important characteristic of her process as Rena kept total control of the inking, continually adjusting the flow and even the colour of the ink as the run progressed. Dabs of new colour were often added to the ink duct while printing and sometimes two different colours are used at either end of the duct and allowed to merge in the middle.

This unorthodox use of a commercial press gave Rena total creative flexibility to allow each image to evolve while achieving long runs. Accidents or effects that fell short of expectations did not mean abandoning the run, as they were exploited or compensated for by adjusting the next printing. The resulting prints have a variety and freshness that can only be achieved by such hands-on involvement.

The material on display has been kindly loaned by Martin Andrews, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication.

There are no examples of Rena Gardiner's books in the University's rare book collections as yet, but Fiona Melhuish, the UMASCS Librarian, is hoping to acquire some examples to add to the Printing Collection.

The exhibition will be on display at the Special Collections Service until 4 June 2010.

Further reading

Andrews, Martin. Rena Gardiner and the Workshop Press, Printmaking Today, v. 2, no. 4, Winter 1993, pp. 24-5.

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